When looking at the rosters of previous Calder Cup champions, each year tells a different story. Combing through history, there are some champions that had an abundance of future NHL talent while other teams relied on players who carved out nice pro careers without reaching the top level.
The 2009-10 Hershey Bears had John Carlson, Jay Beagle, and Braden Holtby on the roster, key pieces for this season’s Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals. While the 2007-08 Chicago Wolves was led by two of the AHL’s all-time greats, Darren Haydar and Jason Krog. The 2017-18 Toronto Marlies’ roster has the potential to be remembered as one with serious top-level talent.
Young Talent Leads Marlies To Victory
The story of the Marlies’ run to the Calder Cup begins with Andreas Johnsson. Johnsson received the honor of playoff MVP after leading the league in post-season scoring with 10 goals and 14 assists for 24 points in 16 games. He re-joined the Marlies after the Maple Leafs’ first-round playoff exit and his presence gave the AHL team an immediate boost, with three points in a must-win Game 5 against the Utica Comets in the first round.
The Marlies swept the next two rounds of the playoffs. Johnsson recovered from a slow start in the final and was a force in Thursday’s 6-1, Game 7 victory over the Texas Stars. It was the kind of performance that shows he has little left to prove at the AHL level and he finished the series with seven points in the final three games.
Johnsson’ skill is obvious. It doesn’t get much better than the cross-ice pass he made to Carl Grundstrom to put the Marlies up 3-0 in Game 7, but his effort and ability to win the puck was noticeable throughout the game while his diving effort to a loose puck broke open the scoring.
Johnsson appeared in six playoff games for the Leafs. For a team with a number of free-agent forwards, he should fill one of those spots next season. Johnsson isn’t the only player that should excite the organization with his overall season and playoff performance. Fellow Swedes Calle Rosen and Carl Grundstrom were outstanding throughout the Calder Cup run.
Rosen looks like a smart offseason signing for an organization that needs reinforcements on the blue line. His mobility in the defensive end made it difficult for the Stars to sustain pressure. Not to mention, Rosen became more of an offensive threat in the playoffs, topping his regular season goal total of four with five playoff tallies in 16 games.
At 24, Rosen is a year older than Johnsson. He appeared fully adjusted to the North American game in the playoffs after starting his career in Sweden. He’s pushed himself into the conversation with Travis Dermott as a young defenseman with a legitimate chance to join the Leafs’ roster at the beginning of next season.
Veterans Add to Story of Calder Cup Final
A championship also comes with its share of feel-good stories. Captain Ben Smith earned his first Calder Cup championship. Smith, 29, has played in 237 NHL games, most notably with the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Marlies also won with key contributions from players familiar with being in the final. Chris Mueller finished with two goals and four assists in the final against the team he won a Calder Cup with in 2013-14. Defenseman Vincent LoVerde and forward Colin Greening also earned their second AHL title.
On the other side, the Texas Stars pushed the best team in the regular season to 7 games. There were stretches when they look outmatched but Texas was opportunistic and backed by the strong play of goaltender Mike McKenna. Sheldon Dries came close to opening the scoring in Game 7 with a shot over the blocker of goaltender Garret Sparks that rang off the post. It could have changed the narrative of that final game, or at least made things a little more interesting.
Dries and fellow rookie, Finnish prospect Roope Hintz had impressive playoff runs on a veteran-heavy Stars team. Hintz, in particular, is an exciting prospect. At 6-foot-3, he combines speed with a large frame. He should be back at the AHL level next year, but playing with the big club in Dallas is in his future.
Travis Morin finished his astounding ninth season with the Stars, a rare feat. He’s won a league scoring title and appeared in three finals with the Stars, winning in 2013-14. In his effort to capture a second Cup for the franchise, Morin registered three goals and four assists in the seven-game series, nearly doubling his playoff output.
One of the best parts of this #CalderCup run was receiving encouragement and support from fans in many places I once played (a lot of places…I know…insert joke here). I can't tell you how much that means to a player. It was a pleasure having you all along for the ride ?
— Mike McKenna (@MikeMcKenna56) June 16, 2018
Then there’s McKenna, who has spent most of his 13-year professional career in the AHL. The netminder came up short in the final series for the second consecutive season. Fans of both teams won’t soon forget the 35-year-old’s heroics in Game 6. The 43-save effort sent the series to a final deciding game. The respect the Marlies had for Mckenna in the handshake line was palpable, with almost every player stopping to exchange a few words with the goalie.
The AHL’s first seven-game Calder Cup final in 15 years provided entertainment for hockey fans into mid-June. Despite the lopsided score in Game 7, the first four games of the series were decided by one goal. The league couldn’t really ask for a better way to wrap up the 2017-18 season.